Macarons, Mock Exams and Afternoon Tea

          Pretty impressive looking, no?

          This guy is just one of the weird and wonderful things we have tackled in the last week in Cooks Academy. As we stare down the barrel the last fortnight of the three month course the pace has picked up by a fair few notches.

The beginning of the week saw the three of us scrambling to muster together a four course meal for an exam trial run. This posed several problems for us, least of which trying to cook an exemplary four courses in just a day. Our main problem being that we were clueless as to what we could actually cook anymore.

We have had so many guest tutors, so many workshops, so many lectures about cuisine that it was challenging to sift through the tomes of knowledge we had been given and glean from that four recipes that best highlight our skills, without being so complicated that we stitch ourselves up.

          Eventually we settled on a list of recipes we were going to attempt. Orla had an idea for a Modern Irish Fusion menu, Claire was designing new ways to re-invent recipes from her childhood and I went with a street-food / festival eating style set of dishes. That’s where our rosy cheeked friend up there comes in.

My first course was a New England Lobster Roll, second course was a Mediterranean Gnocchi with Confit Chicken Wings, then Braised Oxtail Tacos. And for dessert? Well that’s a damn good question. I had a cool idea that didn’t really pan out, I wanted to do a new take on an Ice Cream Soda using a Coca Cola granita with homemade ice-cream and… something? Unfortunately I just couldn’t find something to round out the dish so I have to go back to the drawing board. We all experienced similar troubles on the day so thankfully it was only the mock.

Mediterranean Gnocchi with Confit Chicken Wings

I had another run in with pastry this week as well. One day I will either learn to to stand up to it like a man or it will get tired of picking on me and go steal someone else’s lunch money for once.

The pastry in question was those little French bastards, Macarons. Fashionable nibbles like Macarons tend to divide audiences, some saying they are just too fancy and expensive to justify what you are getting, some saying they are delightfully decadent little morsels.

I sit somewhere in the middle, during college I worked in Brown Thomas in Dublin for a while and would often get little freebies from the girls that worked in Laduree, over time I developed a taste for them. Would I pay for them, probably not. Eat them? Hell yes.

Natasha teaching us about correct meringue technique
Natasha teaching us about correct meringue technique

I am beginning to learn the pitfalls and protocols when it comes to baking, mainly that it requires a whole lot more planning and patience that I am so far giving it. Pastry is not something that can be guessed at and played with. One can’t “Wing It” when working with Italian Meringue and  Ganache. For anyone who knows me, they will know my life credo is “Wing it sure, be grand.” It’s gotten me this far but in the world of baking it shall get me no further, unless I change my approach. That is now firmly on the to-do list.

A tray of piped Macarons

As if one day of delicate pastry work wasn’t enough to throw at me we spent Thursday preparing a whole host of Afternoon Tea style treats.

On the list for the day was a Guinness and Treacle bread, Whoopie Pies, Lemon and Blueberry sponges, more Macarons and (naturally) scones. The Guinness bread went down a treat (I had some leftovers this morning for breakfast), we used it for pickled cucumber  and smoked salmon sandwiches which were beautiful.

On the next tier down in sweetness we had little cranberry scones with a berry coulis and clotted cream, again they were divine. I had never had clotted cream before but it has a rich, buttery texture that worked so well with the scones, I see now why it is so popular. My personal favourite though were the Whoopie pies, a kind of Americanised version on Macarons. Essentially they are the same except instead of meringue the use a cupcake style mix and instead of a fine ganache filling they just have buttercream. None of that intricate French nonsense for the Yanks.

Cranberry Scones with Clotted Cream and berry coulis
The Red Velvet Whoopie Pies with the Lemon and Blueberry Sponges
Guinness Treacle Bread with Smoked Salmon, Pickled Cucumber Sandwiches and Celeriac Remoulade.

During the course of the day Natasha asked me if I would ever work as a pastry chef. Initially I thought No. Pastry requires a discipline and patience that I just don’t have. Then again, the whole point of this course, of this career change was to push myself into new territories and out of my comfort zone. I am beginning to think that like going to the Dentist or doing your multiplication tables it’s not something that I want to do, but something that I really should do. If it requires discipline that I don’t have then I am essentially undisciplined.

That’s not exactly something I want to say about myself. I do think I will work as a pastry chef at some point. But, like my maths homework and flossing before bed it will be something I will need to be forced to do, and ultimately be the better for it.

~ Mark O’Brien

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